City Council Legislation to Open Outdoor Dining Must Not Exclude Street Vendors

5 Jun 2020
City Council Legislation to Open Outdoor Dining Must Not Exclude Street Vendors
 
On Thursday, June 4th, The New York City Council Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing held a hearing on Intro 1957, a bill proposed to create temporary outdoor dining locations for restaurants in public spaces, as well as additional locations for food vendors. Restaurant owners, street vendors, small business advocates, Business Improvement Districts, and Council Members all testified citing their support of the bill proposed by Council Member Antonio Reynoso and Speaker Corey Johnson to open sidewalk dining for struggling restaurants. However, street vendors and supporters raised serious concerns that the proposal does not include language to preserve the existing spaces used by street vendors, risking the elimination of street vendor small business owners who contribute so much to New York City. 
 
"There is no doubt that small businesses across the City have been struggling in the economic fallout from the pandemic, especially those who have been left out from all government support, including many restaurants and most, if not all, street vendors.We are in favor of the legislation Intro 1957...but we are extremely concerned about how this plan and policy will be implemented. The legislation lacks the clarity of ensuring current vending spots will be protected, and vendors will not be displaced. The City Council approach must be inclusive of all small businesses, and ensure that supporting one group of small businesses won't hurt any others... the last thing street vendors expect after this crisis is to be displaced for any reason," said Mohamed Attia, Executive Director of the Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center. 
 
Council Member Andrew Cohen, Chair of the Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing, acknowledged throughout the hearing that equity for New Yorkers means ensuring street vendors, who have been excluded from all relief, are able to continue their businesses and contribute to New York City's economy. He questioned the Commissioner of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg regarding how the administration would ensure implementation of this policy would not displace vendors and create conflict. Commissioner Trottenberg responded stating the Department of Transportation will not deliberately harm vendors, and Small Business Services Commissioner Jonnel Doris stated he shared the concern. However, there is no language yet included to protect mobile food vendors. Full video of the exchange can be found at 1:12:37 in the recording of yesterday’s hearing.  
 
There are approximately 20,000 New Yorkers who sell food and merchandise from the streets and sidewalks of NYC. Street vendors are primarily women of color, military veterans, low-wage immigrant workers who come from communities who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and who have reported income losses of 70-90%. As small business owners and workers, street vendors contribute an estimated $293 million to the city’s economy. Yet despite their critical role, street vendors have been excluded from disaster relief at every level of government, including New York City, whether it be due to their immigration status or the informal nature of their work. If vendors are displaced as a result of this program, then any “reopening” or “recovery” will look just as unequal as the effects of the pandemic.  
 
Sonia Perez, a street vendor from Bushwick, Brooklyn who sells tamales and a range of Mexican dishes, questioned why she would be unable to access the temporary permits being offered to restaurants. She testified through a translator, "I have my mobile food vendors license, which means that I have gone through health and safety training about how to safely prepare food. What I don’t have, however, is a permit to vend, but this is not for lack of trying - I have been to City Hall, I have spoken at Community Board meetings, but with the current lack of permits I cannot work safely vending in the streets. I get chased by police – all for trying to sell tamales in order to care for my family. I am afraid that if this bill Intro 1957 is to pass, without there being an opportunity for vendors who have licenses but not permits to work in public space, other vendors like me will be left out from recovery plans, in the same way we have been left out of all relief." 
 
 
As New York City considers opening streets and sidewalks to restaurants to allow for business to resume safely, The City has the opportunity to reverse course and ensure vendors who make their living serving fresh and affordable food from our city’s streets and sidewalks play a central role in recovery efforts. There are several amendments to the bill that can ensure that vending spots are preserved.  
 
First, the bill should clearly state no “temporary outdoor dining permit” shall be granted for a location that includes space where a food vendor is currently operating or has operated before the pandemic. The actual permit should also state that food vendors must be accommodated in the public space, to avoid any inequality should a conflict arise.    
 
Other proposed ideas to ensure there is no loss of vending spaces should be to relegate restaurant dining to the streets as much as possible, so the sidewalks are free for pedestrians and vendors. If sidewalks are used for restaurant dining, then five feet of space, the width of the largest vending cart, should be preserved from the curb, for food vendors. This could be done by allowing restaurants to use the space usually designated for sidewalk cafes, with additional space depending on the sidewalk width.  
 
The Street Vendor Project supports the proposal to add additional spaces, which are currently restricted, for food vendors. This proposal be instituted on the dozens of streets that were restricted for vendors decades ago at the behest of real estate and corporate interests. Another option would be to repeal the antiquated Department of Transportation rule that prohibits food trucks from operating at metered parking spots and affording them the same rights as all other commercial vehicles. The Council could additionally look at amending the numerous sidewalk placement rules for vendors to make it a little easier for vendors to operate without fear of high fines and other enforcement actions. 
 
"We must explore all possible avenues to help our small businesses and restaurants survive but we can’t charge forward on recovery without a plan for our street vendors, especially those worried about losing the sites they fought for and established a years long footprint in," Council Member Margaret Chin stated on social media, after questioning SBS Commissioner Jonnel Doris on how the plan would be inclusive of street vendors.  
 
In response to the architecture firm Rockwell Group’s renderings for restaurants making use of outdoor spaces to help their businesses, which erased vendors from city streets, architecture firm Fete Nature Architecture released images showing “a vision of an Open Street that incorporates spaces for the public that include both vendors and restaurants. Our two case studies look at how the Open Street can accommodate vendors - small businesspeople that are vital. An equitable city needs to have a welcome place for street vendors who are providing a convenience to the public while also providing a living for their families,” said Julie Torres Moskovitz, founding principal of Fete Nature Architecture, PLLC. 
 
 
Sketch of Berry Street, Brooklyn, showing street vendors and outdoor restaurant dining | Fete Nature Architecture
 
 
Sketch of Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick, Brooklyn showing open streets with street vendors | Fete Nature Architecture
 

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